There is one constant shared by all successful entertainment sites. Numbered Lists. I don’t know why, but you just can’t make it on the Internet without one. We’ve done one or two in the past, but now that things are beginning to roll forward for us, it is time to do a few more. Today’s countdown is the top 10 best video game songs of all time, as voted by the Brain Trust. Far from simple bloops and bleeps, these songs are the soundtrack to our youth.
If you aren’t familiar with a song on the list, well… shame on you. But be sure to visit http://www.vgmusic.com. Multiple examples and remixes of each song on the list can be found there in retro-licious midi form.
10. Level 1 (Rygar)
Usually the goal of a soundtrack is to produce a tone and atmosphere that matches what you see on the screen. With a main character who could easily be confused for a Conan ripoff, you’d expect something with a lot of war drums, and maybe horns that sound like they they were on the head of a ram about fifteen minutes ago. The good folks who scored Rygar managed to resist the urge to fulfill that expectation. Instead, they went with a jaunty little tune that might accompany a gnome marching through a valley. Just because it doesn’t quite fit doesn’t mean it isn’t catchy enough to echo relentlessly in my head for the next three days.
9. Peter Gunn (Spy Hunter)
This is a song instantly recognizable as a spy theme. Play it for virtually anyone from my generation and they will tell you that it is the song from Spy Hunter. It is for that reason that it makes our list, because if you were to ask someone from the previous generation, they wouldn’t likely have the same answer. They might say that it is the theme to the show Peter Gunn… because it IS the theme to the show Peter Gunn. When you manage to coopt a song for your purposes and all but erase any original usage, you are doing something right.
8. Crash Man (Mega Man 2)
The Mega Man Series, particularly the early entries, are remembered for their devilish gameplay. Often overlooked is the music. For a game that is about a robot named Mega Man (or Rock Man depending on your country or level of game snobbery) who kills his fellow robots to use their guns to kill other robots, you’d think we could expect techno in various combinations. Instead you get a wide variety of bizzare mutations of rock, and even this disco masterpiece. Yes sir, nothing says “Robot that shoots wall clamp equipped explosive warheads” like an up tempo club number.
7. Chemical Zone (Sonic 2)
Most composers, when tasked with developing a soundtrack appropriate for a hyper-speed blue rodent doing battle against the robot hordes of an egg shaped megalomaniac, would be at a loss. Not so for the good men and women who worked on the Sonic the Hedgehog series, though if rumors can be believed, this elite group of artists included none other than Michael Jackson. His constant search for new and better ways to delight children is truly admirable… I’ll let you interpret that in any way you choose. The song we’ve selected as the creme de la creme is this little number, for level two of Sonic 2, the Chemical Plant Zone. With synthetic horns and funky bass, one could easily imagine Eddie Murphy in hot pursuit of a drug dealer in the latest 80’s buddy cop flick. What more could you want from a song?
6. Stage 8: Bio Base (Thunder Force 4 aka Lightening Force)
Shoot ‘em ups, or Shmups for the truly time constrained, are intense games. That calls for music that will get the adrenaline pumping, squeezing every last ounce of reaction time out of your overworked synapses. That’s why we picked this song from the little known Sega Genesis title. Thanks to localization I can’t be sure if it is Thunder or Lightening involved, nor am I certain what exact numeral should be applied, but I CAN be certain that there is a force involved. I challenge you to listen to this song and not feel the tingle of rocketing through the sky, blasting an endless stream of enemies with barrage after barrage of little glowing bullets. Classic.
5. Music A (Tetris – Gameboy)
Everything that needs to be said about this song is in the name. Music A. This is not the name of a song. This is a classification. Tetris came from Russia at a time when they were our enemy, and it is pretty clear to me that it was a weapon. It was designed to seize the brains of Americans until no one was watching the radar and then, BAM, nuclear strike. Music A, once heard, cannot be unheard. It is a deceptively simple, almost classical piece that repeats in a neat little cycle nearly as physically addictive as the game itself. Some time in the future it will be discovered that all neurological disorders since 1989 were in fact caused by Music A. But hey, bacon is bad for you too, and I still enjoy THAT.
4. Encounter (Metal Gear Solid)
If played correctly, Metal Gear Solid is a slow, meticulous game of carefully planning routes around patrols. If played the way I do, it is a game of blundering clumsily around, being spotted by guards, panicking and hiding. The soundtrack to that panic is this iconic tune. The mere fact that I never became sick of hearing this song is a testament to its quality, and as is the case with so many of the songs on this list, it sets the perfect tone. In this case, desperation.
3. Overworld (The Legend of Zelda Series)
Some people say a hero is only as good as his villian, but an arguement can easily be made that a hero is only as good has his theme. If that is the case, you might never meet a greater hero than Link. I’m not sure how a handful of notes can say “epic savior of worlds” so efficiently, but then, that’s why I’m not writing game music. All I know is that this potent mix, somewhere between fanfare and victory march, conjures to mind nobility, destiny, and boomerangs. I can’t wait to bomb some dodongos.
2. One Winged Angel (Final Fantasy VII)
The Final Fantasy Series, its tenuous grasp on numbering and the word “Final” aside, has always had excellent music. If there is one thing FF knows besides ludicrously sized swords, vaguely effeminate villians, and agonizingly long cut scene length attacks, it is music. Even in its midi form as heard above, this background music from the final battle sounds like an unholy mixture of the piercing string hits of Psycho and the summoning of the demon from Fantasia. Anyone who has experienced the boss fight in question will agree that this is exactly the tone you want to evoke. This particular song is the perennial second encore at the excellent Video Games Live concerts that crisscross the country, and with good reason. You haven’t heard it until you’ve heard it with a live orchestra.
1. Super Mario (Any and all.)
Super Mario. Aside from the iconic theme, which might be the most recognizable in the world, virtually every level and every game screen is scored with some of the catchiest, best written music ever to grace a computer chip. To give you an idea of the degree to which Super Mario’s music has penetrated the global consciousness, this theme has become the “Hello World” of music. If you teach a device not usually associated with music to play a song, it will be Mario Bros. I’ve heard CNC machines, printers, tesla coils, remote controlled cars with spoons attached, and circular saws play this song. And if you find a new way to play an instrument, this will be the song. Blindfolded, one man with two guitars, ping-pong balls from across the room. A song doesn’t do that without being any good. So here’s to you, Super Mario, for filling my skull with music that will never… never stop.
That’ll do it for today’s arbitrary list. I’m sure that most of you out there would have made some choices differently, but since no one ever comments, I feel confident that I won’t have to validate your opinion in any way. Just in case you have a rebuttal, though, sign up and shout out. We’ll be glad to hear from you.